Don’t let your agent talk you out of an open house (© Tannen Maury/epa/Corbis)

Q: I am about to put my four-bedroom home on the market for $475,000, with a 90-day listing. The agent says she will hold one open house for the general public. She says we don’t need any more because open houses don’t sell homes. Is she right?
— Ocean City, N.J.

A: Heck no, though her opinion is certainly shared by many real-estate agents who would rather do anything else on their weekends than baby-sit a house. I can personally attest to their effectiveness, and not just in boom times: In 1987, while stocks were collapsing and recession was on the horizon, the first real-estate agent I ever used sold the first home I ever owned to a buyer who drove by, saw the open-house yard sign, wandered around for a while and made a full-price offer on the spot.

But many agents tell me that open houses are no longer necessary because most buyers search for homes on the Web. Indeed, the National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers says that nine out of 10 buyers search on the Internet. I don’t agree.

While it’s easy to spend an afternoon blasting through slide show after slide show of homes for sale, photos alone don’t sell homes. They can’t convey how a home smells, sounds or feels — and, as anyone who has seen a room shot through a wide-angle lens knows, they can deceive.

Buyers know this, yet some just don’t want to make a personal appointment with an agent to visit a home that interests them, just as some folks don’t like sales clerks hovering in the background when they shop for clothes. Open houses give these people a chance to browse without too much pressure.

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The NAR’s survey shows old-fashioned open houses have remained consistently useful to consumers, even in the age of YouTube video marketing pitches and virtual home tours with jazzy musical scores. Since 2001, the number of buyers who said they found a house they eventually bought through an open house or yard sign was constant at about 15%. Nor have economic ups and downs made much of an impact on how people regard them. In 2006, 47% of buyers said they used open houses as an information source in their home search; in 2008, the number was 48%.

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And sure, open houses also attract nosy neighbors, bored Sunday drivers, decorating addicts and petty thieves. But all except the last are harmless and may wind up falling in love with your house, or talking it up to someone else who will.

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Thieves, meanwhile, can be thwarted by locking up your valuables and prescription drugs — which you should do before putting your house on the market anyway.

Of course, while your house is open, you should make sure that your home is free of clutter, pets, children, scattered toys, extra cars in the driveway — and you.

Clean like crazy beforehand, preferably with good-smelling citrus-based organic cleaners that won’t upset anyone’s allergies, and don’t forget the windows (remove the screens so the most light shines in).

Draw back the drapes and turn on the lights. Make sure your lawn is mowed, your hedges trimmed and flowers are blooming in pots by your doorway.

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To increase traffic, try some unusual marketing strategies, like holding your open house during rush hour, or coordinating your open house with others in the neighborhood. (Perhaps you can get together with the neighbors and arrange to have a different small snack served at each, like a progressive dinner.)

But whatever you do, don’t choose an agent who won’t hold at least one open house a month. In this economy, you need to use every tool possible to draw attention to your property.

If you’re planning an open house:

  • Clean like crazy beforehand, preferably with good-smelling organic cleaners that won’t upset anyone’s allergies.
  • Clear out the clutter, pets, toys and even extra cars from the garage.
  • Draw back the drapes, clean the windows and remove the screens so the most light shines in.
  • Mow the lawn, trim the hedges and put some blooming flowers in pots by the doorway.